Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it is… A reflection on higher education in flux (#OMDE)

[Image retrieved from]

Since humankind’s early days on the planet, we were interested in (and at times obsessed with) classifying animals, birds, vegetation and alas, fellow humans. Humankind’s survival depended on the ‘correct’ classification between dangerous and harmless snakes, animals, predators as well as poisonous and edible fruits and roots. Our classification regimes however often also became ugly when we classified fellow humans as Jews, blacks, gays, HIV-positive, Hutus, Tutsis, Muslim, Christian, etc resulting in horrendous atrocities tainting the legacy of modernity (e.g. Bauman, 2004).

I did not have time to research this – but I have a suspicion that our classification systems and hierarchies of knowledge became a particular obsession in modernity. It served our “being in control”, our assembly lines of production, and our economic and political regimes. We had to find a place for everything and anything in carefully designed mutually exclusive categories and systems – also in the ways we describe our universities and knowledge systems (see Tierney, 2001).  Our libraries and our curricula carefully placed what we know in predestined places (see the wonderful book by David Weinberger – Everything is miscellaneous: The power of the new digital disorder).  See also a wonderful article by Laura Czerniewicz (2010) mapping the terrain of educational technology.

In an attempt to impose order and structure to the higher education landscape in South Africa, the South African national government has just released a first draft of a Policy Framework for the Provision of Distance Education in South Africa. South Africa never had a policy or policy framework for distance education despite the fact that distance education was always a part of the higher education landscape in South Africa. The University of South Africa (Unisa) is not only the oldest distance education institution and one of the biggest open distance learning (ODL) institutions in the world; but also, in the South African context, the only dedicated distance education provider in the country.

The draft policy framework became necessary, inter alia, due to historical different funding formulas and subsidies for distance education providers; an increasing number of traditional face-to-face higher education providers starting to offer distance education; the need to drastically increase enrolments in higher education; the increasing convergence between traditional distance education institutions and traditional face-to-face institutions in terms of use of technologies eroding accepted definitions of time, space and place.  This convergence of different types of higher education institutions results in the historical definitions of distance education and face-to-face teaching becoming obsolete.

In the past distance education was heralded as a sui generis (Peters 2003), distinct from traditional face-to-face education. The distinctiveness of distance education was ascribed to, inter alia, the quasi-permanent separation between delivering institution and its students; mass enrolments; mediated teaching and learning e.g. printed study materials, use of audio and video and lately learning management systems (LMSs); division of labour resulting in separate units responsible for planning, coordination and control, curriculum development, materials development, assessment, accreditation, and so forth. These characteristics resulted in distance education being lauded as the most industrialised form of education (e.g. Peters 2003). But is this still the case? Not only has higher education in general become more industrialised than ever before, the distinctive features of distance education may no longer be as unique as in the past.

How distinctive are the above characteristics of distance education in the 21st century when more and more traditional face-to-face institutions also deliver distance education, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), flipped classrooms, e-learning, mobile learning and lately ubiquitous learning?  What does a ‘quasi-permanent’ separation between institution and students mean in virtual space? It would seem as if the traditional descriptions of distance education and residential education are becoming obsolete with the delivery of teaching and learning increasingly involving a hotchpotch of different forms and technologies.

So how appropriate are attempts, such as the draft policy framework for distance education, to define and delineate distance education as a sui generis form of education worthy of different funding regimes? Is it still a worthwhile exercise to classify educational forms into neat and boxed, distinct, and mutually exclusive categories? How do we deal with the increasing ‘disorder’ in knowledge production, dissemination and validation?

Any attempt to define distance education and forms of higher education should take note of the following:

  • The changing nature of knowledge. We increasingly see an opening up of Knowledge (with a capital ‘K’) in favour of knowledges, different epistemologies and localised competing narratives (see Weiler, 2004). The meta-narratives of sanctioned Knowledge (with a capital ‘K’) are being questioned, contested, opened, deconstructed and re-imagined. This may sound abstract but look at the next point.
  • The changing nature in knowledge production, research and/or scholarship. In the past knowledge production was centralised in a small number of elitist brick-and-mortar institutions (in service of religion or a nation state) – and this has changed. The number of knowledge producers has exponentially increased and the nature of knowledge production as changed forever. This affects not only the so-called major and formal institutions of higher learning but also the informal structures and processes of knowledge production and sharing via the Internet. The role of higher education has therefore changed – from knowledge production and dissemination as its only function to evaluating, critiquing and validating knowledge claims; framing new questions and pointing to the future (pointing to what we don’t know yet) and engaging with and reshaping the meta-narratives of the day. This brings me to the next point…
  • The changing nature of knowledge dissemination and sharing. Knowledge is no longer only shared (and validated) in accredited journals, classrooms and well-designed study materials. Knowledge in the 21st century is primarily produced and shared via the Internet by individuals and open consortia. While the number of citations and book sales are still in some traditional research and publishing regimes; the number of ‘hits’ and comments on a blog introduces and foregrounds a different validation process and peer review.
  • The changing nature of learning. Learning throughout the ages always included informal learning but since the advent of seminaries and the first universities, formal learning became the dominant form of knowledge dissemination. This change from informal to formal learning also resulted in elitist and exclusionary practices affecting huge parts of the population.The 21st century requires a return to validating and acknowledging informal and just-in-time learning required by the growing workforce, the growing obsolescence of previously canons of knowledge and an ageing population. The current emphasis on increasing access to further education to the thousands of youth excluded from education opportunities should not distract from the demands of the 21st century in which the curricula of today will be obsolete within the next five years. In the past students enrolled for formal qualifications in an attempt to join the elitist ranks of graduates. Many of today’s students are not necessarily interested in formal qualifications; but are also looking for just-in-time, modular chunks of learning to address immediate needs whether in their personal or professional lives. We need to think differently and creatively about our qualifications and the learning journeys we offer.
  • The changing nature of teaching. Traditionally teaching was seen as the responsibility of discipline experts in a particular field who also do research informing their teaching practice. While reflective practice will continue to be an invaluable part of teaching praxis; teaching in a networked society involves a range of actors such as tutors, teaching assistants, peers, automated and disembodied teaching via computer assisted learning, etc. While the role of research-based and research-informed teaching will never disappear, any policy framework should acknowledge and provide spaces for a more nuanced understanding of education in the 21st century.

Since their early days on earth, humankind’s survival depended on our need to categorise and classify. In the sphere of education and higher education in particular, this resulted not only in different forms of higher education such as distance education and brick-and-mortar institutions; but also to distinctions between these types of institutions with regard to quality, funding, etc.

Are these traditional categories still valid ways of describing knowledge production in the 21st century?


Bauman, Z. 2004. Wasted lives. Modernity and its outcasts. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Czerniewicz, L. 2010. Educational technology – mapping the terrain with Bernstein as cartographer. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 26(6):523-534. Retrieved from

Peters, O. 2003. Distance Education in Transition: New trends and challenges. (Vol. 5). Oldenburg: Bibliotheks- und Informationssytem der Universität Oldenburg. Studien und Berichte der Arbeitsstelle Fernstudienforschung der Carl von Ossietzky Universität Oldenburg. Retrieved from

Tierney, W.G. 2001. The autonomy of knowledge and the decline of the subject: postmodernism and the reformulation of the university. Higher Education, 41:353-372. Retrieved from

Weinberg, D. 2007. Everything is miscellaneous: the power of the new digital disorder. New York: Henry Holt and Company, LLC.

Weiler, H.N.2004. Challenging the orthodoxies of knowledge: Epistemological, structural, and political implications for higher education. In Gay Neave (ed.), Knowledge, power and dissent: Critical perspectives on higher education and research in knowledge society. Paris: UNESCO Publishing, (2006), 61-87. Retrieved from


About opendistanceteachingandlearning

Research professor in Open Distance and E-Learning (ODeL) at the University of South Africa (Unisa). Interested in teaching and learning in networked and open distance and e-learning environments. I blog in my personal capacity and the views expressed in the blog does not reflect or represent the views of my employer, the University of South Africa (Unisa).
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2 Responses to Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it is… A reflection on higher education in flux (#OMDE)

  1. I see George Siemens posted a stunning blog relating to the same issue – The future of higher education and other imponderables

  2. Pingback: Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it is… A reflection on higher education … | Distance Education

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